Welcome to the inaugral edition of Screen the Screener (title subject to change, Tweet me suggestions @ben_pfeifer_), my weekly X’s and O’s review. If you know me, you know I watch a lot of basketball, and ever since I’ve started following the league, X’s and O’s have caught my attention.
There’s something about a perfect possession, filled with motion, screening and ball movement, that makes me giddy, like a kid on Christmas morning. Mostly overlooked by the casual eye, offensive action is a vital component of any successful NBA team.
The details behind NBA offenses are not appreciated enough. So here are some of the best sets, wrinkles and motions I caught over the past week in the NBA. If you have any suggestions about how to improve this, I am always on Twitter.
For any X’s and O’s junkie, the Utah Jazz are a must watch. Head coach Quin Snyder is a tactical savant and his team features a gang of creative and exciting players. One of the hallmarks of any great NBA coach is effective after-timeout plays (ATOs), which give the coach full control of his offense.
On this first play, Donovan Mitchell Iverson cuts across the court and Jae Crowder enters the ball to Rudy Gobert. Utilizing elite shooters as screeners has become increasingly common in the NBA today and for good reason. No sane individual will give the slightest airspace to Kyle Korver because he is a threat to fire from anywhere on the floor.
Korver’s gravity frees up Crowder for a layup but Gobert misses him. No worries though, as Korver flows into a dribble handoff for a good look at a three-point shot.
A staple of the Mike D’Antoni Suns “seven seconds or less” offense, the flex cut, isn’t as common in today’s NBA. But Utah brings it back to 2007 with this ATO, as Joe Ingles flex screens for Derrick Favors who makes the layup.
The Portland Trail Blazers are going to look for this flex screen for the rest of the game now and Snyder knows this. Setting up the Blazers for failure, Ingles gestures to Favors as if they are setting up another flex screen under the basket. Pulling out the play-action bootleg, Ingles sprints the other way and receives the DHO from Gobert, befuddling Maurice Harkless for a straight-line drive.
The Orlando Magic give us another example of how to fool the defense with the threat of a previous set. In early offense, the Magic line up in a compressed set with non-threatening spacing. Before the defense can react, Terrence Ross sprints, around the screen for an alley-oop.
On the very next possession, Magic head coach Steve Clifford calls for the same alignment and the same initial action. But the Rockets are ready for it this time and switch the back screen, as they do for most screens. After Houston closes down the lob, Orlando ostensibly flows into a double ball screen. But Aaron Gordon cuts early, allowing Mohamed Bamba to set the inside ball screen.
Because the Rockets switch this screen, P.J. Tucker sinks down to help out on Gordon. Taking advantage of Tucker’s position, Jonathon Simmons rifles a pass to Gordon in the corner for a wide open three.
No cornucopia of NBA offensive goodness would be complete without some Gregg Popovich action. This next play is a Spurs’ offensive staple called “high post X.”
Two guards basket cut around the high-post big in an “X” formation and the first option is to find the cutting guards. If neither is open, they flow into two floppy screens on both sides. Because of the initial X cut, D’Angelo Russell is trailing Derrick White, who curls the screens for a layup.
The Indiana Pacers aren’t a team who most associate with good offense. They’ve lost four straight with Victor Oladipo out and their offensive deficiencies are on full display. However, head coach Nate McMillan has busted out some nice sets and wrinkles to common Pacer actions.
Unlike most NBA teams, the Pacers are ruthless in seeking out switches and attacking smalls in the post. Like a lion hunting a gazelle, the Pacers wait for the moment to pounce on the throats of their prey. However, many of these so-called Lions are bad at their jobs. Thaddeus Young is one of the most underrated players in the NBA but he should not be iso posting much, if at all.
So the Pacers take a page out of their opponent’s book and mix in a pseudo-low-post split with their typical post-ups. The defense, having watched tape on the Pacers before, did not expect Bojan Bogdanovic to backscreen for Edmond Sumner, who Young finds for the old man jam.
Some uncharacteristically picturesque motion by Indiana, they confuse the Golden State Warriors’ defense with screens in succession. Darren Collison back screens for Bogdanovic, who then receives a back screen from Myles Turner.
Normally, Turner would ball screen for Collison and the motion would die. But in this instance, Turner sets a makeshift screen for Bogey who drills an open trifecta.
Kenny Atkinson is one of the best coaches in the NBA at designing plays which exploit shooting gravity to create openings. Joe Harris is one of the best shooters in the NBA today, burning down the nets at a rate of 46.2 percent from deep, per NBA.com.
Patty Mills actually defends this double ball screen to perfection but Marco Belinelli doesn’t react quickly enough to the Harris flare screen. Harris gets a straight-line drive and an easy dish to Jarrett Allen for the finish.
So there you have it, the best X’s and O’s I saw this week in the NBA. I hope you learned something new today or got some enjoyment out of this. Most importantly, I hope people can understand the game of basketball on a deeper level and learn to watch NBA basketball through a different lens.